Cowboys jettison one of Jerry Jones’ favorite (but fading) defensive stars. The move showcases growth and brains

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·NFL columnist
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Linebacker Jaylon Smith, one of the Dallas Cowboys’ defensive captains in Sunday’s win over the Carolina Panthers, will officially be off the roster by the end of Wednesday. Even in a cold-blooded, bottom-line NFL, that’s an eyebrow-raiser.

In the small picture of 2021, Dallas is paying attention to a larger window of the coming offseason. And with Smith’s release, the franchise safeguarded some vital salary-cap flexibility in 2022.

That’s the takeaway from this move, which the team announced late Tuesday night. It was somewhat of a surprise, given that Smith has long been a sentimental favorite of team owner Jerry Jones, who as recently as last November was insisting that the drafting of the injured Notre Dame star in 2016 and then eventual 2019 contract extension was a “home run” for the franchise. But dollars and sense (yes, sense, not cents) are taking a more prominent seat at the table for a talented Dallas roster. That means Jerry’s affinity for some players is going to have to be set aside, particularly when it concerns future cap health. And believe it or not, there’s a very arguable stance that cutting Smith was the right move despite him still being guaranteed the balance of his $7.2 million base salary.

The short of it: This is a defensive chess move. 

It protects Dallas against the risk of Smith suffering a catastrophic injury this year that could result in locking in his $9.2 million base salary in 2022, which was guaranteed for injury. It’s also smart and a sign of some growth in the franchise. In past years, Jerry’s sentimentality might have won out in this moment. There were seasons when Jerry might have exposed the future to risk rather than making the smart but difficult decision. 

While that sounds cold when it comes to Smith being dumped off the roster, it’s also not that rough considering he’s still going to see every cent of his base 2021 salary. Compared to some of the more unceremonious cuts that happen in the NFL, that’s a nice parting gift.

In return, Dallas is free of the injury risk that could lock Smith onto the books in 2022. And it's also free of a player who wasn’t playing well enough to justify the five-year, $64 million extension he signed ahead of the 2019 season. It was a deal that once had Jones beaming on the day it was struck, with the belief that Dallas had gotten a steal by getting ahead of Smith’s potential free-agent market.

At the time, the deal looked like a huge win. After sitting out his rookie season in 2016 while rehabilitating nerve damage and a devastating knee injury suffered in his final collegiate game, Smith flashed promise as a spot starter in 2017. In 2018, he exploded into a promising starter who looked capable of being a long-term defensive cornerstone. By the time the 2019 season was approaching, he was headed for a defensive captaincy and that aforementioned contract extension.

But what the Cowboys didn’t know at the time was that Smith’s 2019 Pro Bowl season would begin a decent. By the end of 2020, he was a consistent liability against the run and looked like he was transitioning into more of a situational linebacker than an every-down staple. His performance was so concerning, it led Dallas to prioritize the linebacker position in the 2021 draft. A redrawn defensive plan ultimately resulted in the drafting of Micah Parsons and Jabril Cox in the first and fourth rounds, both of whom have made Smith more expendable only four games into the season.

In reality, if it hadn’t been for the injury to defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence — which flexed Parsons into a pass rushing role at defensive end — Smith’s playing time likely was headed to around 25 percent of the defensive snaps under new coordinator Dan Quinn. That is precisely what was set to happen upon Lawrence's return from a foot injury, shifting Parsons back to his role in the middle of the defense and putting Smith back onto the sideline in the majority of packages.

Sep 27, 2021; Arlington, Texas, USA; Dallas Cowboys middle linebacker Jaylon Smith (9) and defensive tackle Osa Odighizuwa (97) pressure Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts (1) during the game at AT&T Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports
Cowboys middle linebacker Jaylon Smith (9) and defensive tackle Osa Odighizuwa (97) pressure Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts in Week 3. (Kevin Jairaj/USA TODAY Sports)

Add it all up and you have a once bright star whose play plateaued to the point of him not being worth his 2022 salary slot, a position Dallas is going to need with some forthcoming extension talks with a chunk of the team’s developing young depth headed for free agency. That group includes wideout Michael Gallup, linebacker Leighton Vander Esch, guard Connor Williams, tight end Dalton Shultz, and defensive end Randy Gregory. Even with the salary cap set to take a solid jump back into a growth direction next season, Dallas is going to need all the spare cap space it can get. And even after cutting Smith loose, the Cowboys still have to go to work finessing some other cap hits of their veterans to keep the majority of their key free agents.

When you press that reality against Smith’s underperformance and young parts of the defense that appear ready to be developed, the result is a logical decision. And the financial layout will get at least slightly better whenever Smith is picked up by another team — likely for the veteran minimum in the season’s remaining games — and his salary offset goes back onto Dallas' books for a rollover into 2022. Granted, that amount will likely work out to less than $1 million, but every bit will count.

That math is an icy way to look at a player who once held so much promise in Dallas. It also speaks to some surprising depth and performance on defense. Not to mention how Quinn is scheming, with safeties also becoming a bigger priority that was lessening some of Smith’s opportunities.

This move shows that Dallas is drawing up a smarter defense, a group that is suddenly experiencing the benefit of relying on younger and cheaper players. When something like that happens, the first players to get threatened are underperforming or odd-fitting veterans. Smith fell into that category, and the team had to protect itself for the future. That Jerry Jones didn’t put on his rose-colored glasses and open his arms to unnecessary risk is another sign that Dallas appears to be changing, both on the field and inside the financial ledger.

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